Helen of Troy, as told by Margaret Atwood: a poem

Today I wanted to share one of my favorite poems ever. This is “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” by Margaret Atwood. I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem recently, because I’m reading this book about Helen of Troy through the ages, Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell.

I first read this poem in college and since Helen of Troy is a source of constant fascination to me, I wanted to share this fantastic, amazing poem and my thoughts. My last essay I ever wrote as an undergrad dealt with Helen and this poem, and it’s been dear to me ever since.

Here it is:

Helen_of_TroyThe world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

I love this poem because it’s somewhat an updated interpretation of Helen of Troy’s persona for the 20th century, and also because it makes clear that Helen is still relevant today. We still struggle with gender inequality, and as a society, women are still objectified and reduced to something less than human for expressing sexuality, and are demonized for practicing agency.

Gender norms and sex politics are all there in the story of Helen of Troy, and Margaret Atwood’s take just makes that so much clearer in this poem, rich and striking and beautiful and uncomfortable.

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Sunday Inspiration | A poem by John Milton

20140723_143530Today’s post is a poem by John Milton. Milton is one of my favorite poets because of Paradise Lost, one of my favorite works of literature ever. I took a class in my senior year of college based entirely on Milton (shoutout to my amazing professor at Fordham University) and in the first week or so of class, she assigned Sonnet VII to us, written by Milton when he was 23 years old:

SONNET VII.

ON HIS BEING ARRIVED AT THE AGE OF 23.

HOW soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth,
     Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!
     My hasting days fly on with full career,
     But my late spring no bud or blossom sheweth.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
     That I to manhood am arrived so near,
     And inward ripeness doth much less appear
     That some more timely happy spirits indueth.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
     It shall be still in strictest measure even
     To that same lot however mean or high,
Toward which time leads me and the will of heaven.
     All is, if I have grace to use it so,
     As ever in my great taskmaster’s eye.

In case you’re like, “ugh poetry,” this poem is basically about the fear and anxiety Milton feels at having accomplished little by this age, and it’s also about the future that he knows is his: a literary career. “Toward which time leads me and the will of heaven” is basically like, “I know I haven’t done much to further my career right now, but I know that I will soon be working toward my destiny, because God wills it.”

At this time, Milton was 23 and all his friends were publishing while Milton was at home just reading and studying. His friends were like, “Bro. What are you doing with your life?” And he was defending himself against their criticism, expressing anxiety, but also asserting his opinion that he wasn’t wasting his time studying, learning, and reading: he knew that his future held something good, and he was okay taking his time to get there, as long as he was quietly (and slowly) working. Also, he was like, “Dudes, get off my back. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”

I picked this poem to share today because I’m 23, and I feel such anxiety sometimes about the future — I think all of us do. I think it’s sort of inspiring and comforting to know that one of the most successful English poets ever felt totally lost at 23, too. I keep remembering this poem even though I first read it over two years ago, and it’s a nice reminder that as long as I keep working, it’s okay if I don’t have everything figured out all at once. Yaknow?

Happy Sunday and have a great week!signoff

Love for my favorite poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott’

When I was about 12/13 years old, I read the book by Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible BeautyIt’s fairly famous now, but it was a new release in 2003, about a young Victorian girl with strange, magical powers. And printed before the book began was a passage from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” It became one of my favorite poems.

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Here’s one of my favorite passages, which was also the one included in the Bray book:

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

* * *

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half-sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

The Lady of Shalott is based on an Arthurian figure named Elaine of Astolat, who wastes away for love of Lancelot. In the poem, she’s cursed to remain in her tower forever. If she leaves, she will die. In the second part of the poem she declares she would rather die than stay trapped in her tower forever, and she dies while floating on a river. On a boat, her body floats to shore where Lancelot sees her and just says she’s pretty. Men! 😉

The Lady of Shalott is so tragic and dazzlingly beautiful, and it was my favorite poem when I was 13, and it still is my favorite poem at 23. When I was 19 I got “I am half sick of shadows” tattooed on my ribs and I have a print of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott hanging in my bedroom. Something about the Lady’s strength, courage and helpless love touched me, and it still does.

I really resonated with her choice to leave her tower and let the curse come upon her. She chooses to live for a short time outside her tower, rather than live for a long time as a prisoner of her curse, never experiencing life or chasing what she truly desires. I think that’s a theme that still means a lot to me today.

Read the whole thing here.

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